U.S. Life Expectancy Increases for the First Time in Four Years

Learn what helped offset the recent rise in suicides and flu-related deaths.

Dad holding/hugging daughter

Medically reviewed in January 2022

Life expectancy in the United States increased for the first time in four years in 2018 as death rates for some of the country’s leading killers—cancer, lung disease and heart disease—fell, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

That means babies born in 2018 will live a bit longer than those born a year earlier—78.7 years vs 78.6 years for the total population—the January 2020 CDC report showed.

The slight uptick was mainly due to a drop in death rates from cancer and a decrease in fatalities due to unintentional injuries, which include drug overdoses. These declines helped offset a rise in suicides and flu-related deaths, the CDC noted.

Cancer and drug-related deaths falling
Breakthrough treatments for lung cancer and melanoma contributed to a 2.2 percent drop in overall cancer deaths between 2016 and 2017—the sharpest one-year drop in cancer deaths on record, according to a separate January 2020 report from the American Cancer Society. This decline suggests that more than 2.9 million deaths have been prevented since the early 1990s.

Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved two new drugs (ipilimumab and vemurafenib) in 2011, one-year survival rates for those with advanced forms of melanoma jumped 13 percent from 2010 to 2015.

Meanwhile, deaths resulting from the use of opioids dropped overall in 2018, offsetting an 11 percent increase in overdose deaths specifically involving fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, the CDC reported in August 2019.

Opioid deaths, suicide rates remain high
Prior to the most recent findings, life expectancy declined 0.3 years for both men and women from 2014 to 2017. During that time, overdose deaths among Americans reached a new high.

In fact, a separate January 2019 report from the National Safety Council (NSC) revealed that for the first time in history, Americans were more likely to die from an opioid overdose than a car accident, which had long been the leading cause of unintentional death in the U.S. The NSC blamed the country’s ongoing opioid crisis and abuse of fentanyl for the grim findings.

Meanwhile, death rates for flu and pneumonia increased between 2017 and 2018, the CDC showed. The agency reports that the 2017-2018 flu season was the deadliest in 40 years.

Suicide death rates also climbed 33 percent, from 10.5 to 14.0 suicides for every 100,000 people between 1999 and 2017, according to a November 2018 CDC report. A separate January 2020 study conducted by the Commonwealth Fund revealed that among a group of 11 wealthy nations, the U.S. has the highest suicide rate. And despite spending more on health care, the U.S. still has a lower life expectancy than other high-income nations, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

Article sources open article sources

Kenneth D. Kochanek, M.A., Robert N. Anderson, Ph.D., and Elizabeth Arias, Ph.D. “Changes in Life Expectancy at Birth, 2010–2018.” National Center for Health Statistics, Health E-Stat, January 2020.
Rebecca L. Siegel, MPH, Kimberly D. Miller, MPH, Ahmedin Jemal, DVM, PhD. “Cancer Statistics, 2020.” CA: A Cancer Journal for Clinicians. 2020;0:1-24.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Changes in Opioid-Involved Overdose Deaths by Opioid Type and Presence of Benzodiazepines, Cocaine, and Methamphetamine — 25 States, July–December 2017 to January–June 2018.”
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Drug Overdose Deaths in the United States, 1999–2017.”
National Safety Council. “For the First Time, We’re More Likely to Die From Accidental Opioid Overdose Than Motor Vehicle Crash.”
The Commonwealth Fund. “New International Report on Health Care: U.S. Suicide Rate Highest Among Wealthy Nations.”

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